Bio-Detection: The Next Canine Career?

16 Feb Bio-Detection: The Next Canine Career?

So, we all know that dogs have unbelievably talented sniffers. They’ve got 220,000,000 olfactory receptors in their schnozzes, humans have only 5,000,000. And it shows. When was the last time you saw a human sniffing out the trail of a hardened felon? One that hadn’t somehow gotten coated with doughnut glaze that is.

Now, I know you know they smell things well. But they can also do seemingly-extraordinary things like sniff out diseases. Do you know how they do that?

Yes, sniffing out diseases is a thing dogs can do. It takes quite a bit of training, but it’s possible. While there’s been a decent amount of testing done and knowledge gained, the fruits of these experiments haven’t been implemented into societies yet. There are, however, very high hopes for when they finally are. Bio-detection could become another, highly significant industry dogs rise to the challenge for. If all goes well, one day we could see them all the time as they sniff out diseases in schools, hospitals, homes, and airports.

But how do they do it?

Ok, so, take Malaria; Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite and spreads via mosquitoes. When Plasmodium has found a human host and settled in, it puts out a scent that makes female mosquitoes really want to suck that person’s blood. When it does, it sucks up Plasmodium with it. The next time that mosquito feeds on a human, it infects them with Plasmodium, and malaria has officially spread. Dogs, who can detect a teaspoon of sugar hidden in two Olympic-size swimming pools, can identify the scent malaria parasites put out.

Cancer works similarly; our cells release metabolic waste all the time, and dogs can smell that. However, the metabolic waste that cancerous cells release is discernible from that of healthy, normal cells so that dogs can differentiate between the two, and if trained, can warn owners about it.

Apparently, humans cannot detect the scents that little cells and Plasmodium put out – but dogs can.  Just because we don’t have a prayer of naturally identifying a scent so minuscule doesn’t mean they are not there.

The trick is getting dogs to recognize these scents.  They can detect them, but if they haven’t been trained to care, they probably won’t. Luckily, nature has given dogs some quirks that researchers can use as a jumping off point for training like this.

Medical Detection Dogs is a charitable organization dedicated to researching bio-detection-capabilities of canines. Researchers have dogs walk down a line and sniff rows of jars that have scented training liquids in them. New scents that are unfamiliar to the dogs are added in as needed. Dogs have neophilia, which means they’re naturally attracted to new smells. Researchers train the dogs to stop at each unrecognized scent, sit, and point. Since the charity doesn’t own these dogs, such training can take months. But once the dogs get a handle on it, researchers transition them to sniffing out diseases like malaria, diabetes, and various cancers.

In the future, it’s hoped that dogs can be used to detect Malaria in African schools by sniffing children’s socks, potentially saving countless lives. With any luck, it’s only a matter of time until bio-detection dogs become widely implemented, at least until we teach robots what odor is.

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